"Stephen Bishop...the greatest caver of his time."Review of Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave
NSS News, Nov. 2009
by Danny A. Brass
Roger Brucker is a well-known figure within the caving community. He has been an avid underground explorer, especially of the Mammoth Cave region, and is the co-author of several celebrated caving texts: The Longest Cave, Trapped!, The Caves Beyond, and Beyond Mammoth Cave. His latest book is a voyage into the world of historical biography. Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar is a biographical novel about the life and times of renowned caver Stephen Bishop, the young slave who rose above a life of servitude to become the most famous of the early underground tour guides and a legendary explorer of Mammoth Cave.
The tenure of Stephen Bishop was a colorful time in the history of Mammoth Cave, eclipsed only by the infamous Kentucky cave wars of the early 1900s, the spellbinding sixteen-day saga of Floyd Collins (1925) that transfixed the nation and altered the course of caving history, and the massive exploration efforts more than a century after Bishop's death that unequivocally established Mammoth Cave as the longest cave in the world. Prior to its designation as national park in 1941, ownership of the cave and the land surrounding it had changed hands from time to time, as did the priorities and vision of its caretakers. As his story of Stephen Bishop unfolds, Brucker examines the complex relationship between people and the cave-from exploration and tourism to health benefits for tubercular patients-which has continued to grow and evolve with the passage of time.
In this interesting and well-written account, readers will learn about Bishop through the eyes of his wife, Charlotte, who narrates the story. Brucker explores aspects of Bishop's life both above and belowground, mixing elements of everyday life as a slave in mid-nineteenth-century Kentucky with sojourns into the depths of Mammoth Cave. Being an invaluable asset to the successful operation of Mammoth Cave as a commercial enterprise, Bishop certainly enjoyed privileges as a slave not generally available to others, including the "freedom" to indulge his one true passion: exploring the vast subterranean wilderness of the Mammoth Cave system. Nevertheless, as Brucker points out, his life and daily activities remained largely under the control of taskmasters.
In breathing life into the characters of Stephen and Charlotte Bishop, Brucker succeeds in putting a human face on individuals barely known outside of the caving community-drawing them out from behind a veil of mystery and placing them in specific relief. As such, this book bridges a longstanding gap in the caving literature, providing a valuable link to what little is known about the man who was arguably the greatest caver of his time.
Weaving his tale around available accounts of Bishop's life, Brucker expresses himself in a clear and easily read style. He writes with authority on a well-researched subject and a cave system that he is intimately familiar with. His protagonists are described in the context of their hopes and dreams, triumphs and tragedies. Of necessity, of course, historical fact is mixed with credible fiction in order to flesh out the story. Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar-a phrase that Bishop himself used to describe various aspects of the cave-is a suitable selection for a wide range of individuals, from young readers to adults. This fact-based biographical saga is sure to stimulate an interest in Mammoth Cave and in Bishop's steadfast efforts to plumb its depths. It nicely complements Brucker's earlier texts, which offer detailed accounts of more recent exploration in this extraordinary cave system. This work will appeal to anyone with an interest in Mammoth Cave, including cavers and tourists alike, placing a century and a half of ongoing exploration in the world's longest cave system into historical perspective.